Learning to Use the Contemporary Library: A Laboratory Exercise

Learning to Use the Contemporary Library: A Laboratory Exercise

Charles I. Abramson, Donald P. French, and Steven Locy

Oklahoma State University

Scheduled to appear in: In L. Benjamin, B. Nodine, R. Ernst, C. Blair-Broeker (Eds.). Activities handbook for the teaching of psychology, Volume 4. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


An exercise to acquaint students with various services provided by an academic library is presented. The exercise can be used in elementary and advanced psychology courses and is designed to teach students how to use new library technology and to sharpen such basic but underutilized skills as using interlibrary loan, ordering dissertations, using Science Citation Index, and finding information about graduate programs, grants, and fellowships.


Efforts to provide students with a quality education that will equip them with basic research skills useful in school and life begin, in our view, at the steps of the library. Undergraduate students will often nod in the affirmative when asked if they know how to use a particular database, gather information about a publisher, acquire a thesis, or find an important but obscure reference, or article. Yet, when asked to obtain some material, they cannot do so in a timely and efficient manner. Students who are proficient in the use of the library can make better use of directed research experiences, use their study time more efficiently, help themselves by finding scholarships and fellowships, and make better graduate students. Students with library skills are better prepared to enter academic and nonacademic careers than those who lack such skills.

Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and surveys indicate that many students remain ignorant about the services academic libraries provide or how to obtain information they need to function successfully in an academic environment (Moore, 1989). This article describes an active learning exercise in which students engage in a library "treasure hunt." It consists of 25 tasks roughly divided into 3 sections: (1) databases, (2) general library search skills, and (3) self-education (i.e., what the library can do for the student). These sections were designed to correspond in part to the minimum training guidelines for library instruction for psychology majors recommended by Merriam, LaBaugh, & Butterfield (1992). The instructor can assign any or all of the sections. Suggested replies to a subset of questions follow each section.

Materials Needed

The materials needed are access to a research library, a hand-out of the library exercise, a formatted computer disk, copy card, and access to a word processing program. The exercise was originally developed for a laboratory course in experimental psychology and can be completed in approximately 2 hr. Individual tasks are presented as models that can be easily modified to fit the needs of an instructor, course, and academic institution. Reed and Baxter (1992) provided a useful guide that presents information on reference sources, journals, and computer-based material. The information in this and other guides (Baxter, 1993; McInnis, 1982) can be used to modify the assignment.

Section I:

The first section covers the use of various CD-ROM databases. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of psychology and the opportunity to develop a laboratory exercise that would teach skills useful for any course, we felt it was important for students to learn not only how to use PsycLIT but other databases available at our library such as Medline. This section also teaches students how to use the Institute for Scientific Information's Science Citation Index.

1. How many CD-ROM database systems does the library offer?

2. Describe the steps necessary to conduct a CD-ROM search. Include in your answer the use of search operators.

3. What are the limitations and drawbacks of a CD-ROM search?

4. What are the benefits of a CD-ROM search?

5. Conduct a literature search on your assigned topic using each of the following databases: Agricola, Biological Abstracts, GeoRef, Medline, PsycLIT. Download the results of your search onto a floppy disk. Using a word processing program upload your literature review. Turn in both the floppy disk and a printout of your review.

6. What is Science Citation Index?

7. How do you use Science Citation Index?

8. Why would you use Science Citation Index?

9. Use Science Citation Index and describe how you did this.

The answer to many of these questions relies, to a great extent, on the facilities of the library. For example, at OSU there are over 14 networked CD-ROMs, and 40 separate CD-ROM database systems. Each system contains the standard search operators such as With, And, Near, Not, and allow the student to output the results of their search to a printer or floppy disk. The floppy disk can be uploaded to the student's personal computer for later integration into literature reviews and other writing assignments. In conducting a CD-ROM search, students will note in their answers limitations that focus on the use and location of the databases (e.g., manually loading a CD-ROM, machines dedicated to a single database, difficulty in gaining access during peak hours), an inability to access material prior to 1970, and issues of accuracy. With regard to accuracy students might be surprised to further learn that there is no guarantee that a journal abstracted in one CD-ROM issue will be abstracted in the next and that there is no guarantee that the entire issue will be abstracted leading to what is known as selective indexing. These limitations are off-set somewhat by such advantages as speed, and the ability to download information. The advantage of speed is readily apparent when students are required to use paper abstracts. The remaining questions focus on Science Citation Index. Students should note in their replies that the index is an alphabetical listing (by author) of all citations found in footnotes and bibliographies of journal articles and is a valuable source for tracing the evolution of an idea, determining the popularity of a research area, estimating the publication record of a potential faculty advisor, and verifying an article citation.

Section II:

The second section covers such routine, yet rarely utilized, tasks as locating and ordering doctoral and master's theses, finding an address of a publisher, and converting an abbreviated journal title into APA style. Knowing how to acquire theses is important for students engaged in historical research. We also believe that students should know how to use paper versions of abstracts. As mentioned previously relying solely on computerized databases to conduct literature reviews is not only dangerous but does not allow students access to the pre 1970 literature (Abramson, 1994).

1. What is Dissertation Abstracts?

2. How would you use Dissertation Abstracts?

3. Use Dissertation Abstracts and photocopy or printout the abstracts describing the dissertations of

a. (One of the choices typically is the instructor's thesis)

b. Charles I. Abramson

c. Donald P. French

4. How would you acquire the dissertations mentioned above?

a. from University Microfilms

b. from Interlibrary loan

5. What are the steps necessary to obtain a dissertation written at a foreign university?

6. How do you acquire a master's thesis?

7. The following are several abbreviated titles of scientific journals. Find the full names and explain how you did it.

a. J. Exp. Bio.

b. Sitz. Ber. D. Akad. Wiss. Wien. Math. Naturwiss.

c. Zool. Jb.

d. J. C. P.

8. How do you find the address of a book publisher? What is the address of K.D.V.H. publisher in Illinois?

9. You are about to submit a manuscript to Journal of Comparative Psychology, find and attach the "Instructors to Authors" for the current year.

10. What is the difference between microfilm and microfiche?

11. Using microfilm or microfiche, find the school catalog for the college of your choice and list the Chairperson of the psychology department.

12. Using the paper version of Psychological Abstracts, locate the abstracts and photocopy the information associated with the titles of:

a. Skinner, B.F. (1935)

b. Thurstone, L.L. (1930)

13. Find one book and one article that the library does not have. Fill out (DO NOT SEND) an interlibrary loan form for each and attach it to the rest of your material.

Students should note in their answers that Dissertation Abstracts is a database containing abstracts from all doctoral dissertations completed at over 1000 accredited colleges and universities worldwide. The database dates back to 1861and is useful for identifying trends, locating comprehensive subject bibliographies, reviewing the dissertations of famous psychologists, and when purchased through University Microfilm or borrowed through inter-library loan, providing a wealth of unpublished material that is useful in conducting research. Master's thesis can also be borrowed from inter-library loan. The answer to question 3 concerning the titles of the Abramson (1986) and French (1985) dissertations are: "Aversive conditioning in honey bees (Apis mellifera)" and "The dynamics of behavior during the formation and maintenance of social systems in bluegill sunfish, Lepomis macrochirus" respectively. The full title of a journal can be obtained from Periodical Title Abbreviations published by Gale Research Company (Detroit, MI) and should be available at the library reference desk. The complete titles of the journals mentioned in question 7 are: (a) Journal of Experimental Biology, (b) Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaffen in wien, Mathematisch _ Naturwissenschaftliche Klassee, (c) Zoologische Jahrbuecher, (d) Journal of Comparative Psychology. The address of the publisher mentioned in question 8 is: K.D.V.H., P.O. Box 6788, Chicago, IL 60680 and can be found in the Publishers Directory also published by Gale Research Company.

Instructions to Authors are commonly found in the January issue of a journal and are often available in each issue. In question 10, the primary difference between microfilm and microfiche is ease of use. The rectangular design and individual sheets make it easier to find material on microfiche. The answer to question 12 is: B. F. Skinner, "A discrimination without previous conditioning" and L. L. Thurstone, "The mental growth curve for the Binet tests."

Section III:

In the final section of the exercise students use library resources to find information on a potential faculty advisor, grants, fellowships and potential graduate schools.

1. You are interested in attending graduate school but do not know with whom you might like to work. What library resources would be helpful?

2. You plan to apply to graduate school. You know the name of someone who might interest you, but you have no other information. How do you use the library to find additional information. (To answer this question you must have an idea what information is important.)

3. You are interested in scholarship and financial aid programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Where do you look to obtain the information? List the names and addresses of several private and public sources where you may obtain funding.

Students should note in their replies that they can use any of the CD-ROM databases to select a potential advisor. One strategy is to conduct a literature search to learn about the work an individual(s) who excites them. The "popularity" of the research can be estimated with Science Citation Index, the publication record can be estimated by conducting, for example, a PsycLIT database search or by using the library Internet site to visit the home page of the potential advisor. The amount of successful grant activity can be estimated by reading the author notes of papers published by the potential advisor. A subsequent Internet search of the granting agency will determine the amount and duration of the grant. Students should also be aware that many libraries contain college catalogs (or CD-ROMs) describing the programs of other universities. A library Internet workstation can also be used to "visit" potential campuses. Students will note that a limitation of an Internet visit is that the quality of university and departmental home pages vary widely and may not contain all the information available in the university catalog. Students will also be aware that they can use the Internet to search for various government databases containing information on student grants and fellowships. They will note in their answers that books such as the Foundation Directory (Gale Research Company) describe funding opportunities offered by private foundations as does a CD-ROM (e.g., Knight-Ridder OnDisc Grants Database) that covers government and private sources of funding.


The exercise should be assigned during the first week of the semester and prefaced by a lecture that addresses the importance of a research library and the type of skills necessary to retrieve information effectively. College librarians are often glad to deliver such lectures. As Baxter (1986) and Parr (1978, 1979) have discussed, librarians, because of their contact with students, are in a unique position to anticipate questions and offer practical suggestions. Moreover, as Merriam et al. (1992) suggested, students feel less intimidated when entering a library to begin the assignment (and on subsequent visits) because they now have a contact person who understands their frustrations and fears in using library technology.

Before students begin the assignment, it is important to work closely with a library staff member whether or not a librarian presents the library lecture. A librarian should be given a copy of the assignment (with answer key) and will alert the library staff to expect many anxious students often asking the same questions. If the class contains a laboratory component, the laboratory instructor should accompany and assist both the students and librarian.


We have used the library research laboratory with great success in advanced courses such as the psychology of learning and in introductory psychology. The exercise was especially effective for students engaged in directed research. Such students receive the exercise prior to the first laboratory meeting and upon its completion begin their directed research project. It is our experience that such students became more effective and productive members of the laboratory. The exercise can also be used to evaluate a student's critical thinking ability (e.g., how efficiently the student conducts a computerized on-line search) and persistence.

The library exercise can also be used by colleges and high schools that have limited library resources. If necessary, interested students or classes can visit a local university library that has the necessary facilities. High school teachers can use this exercise by arranging a tour with the local university library that will enable their students to learn library skills before enrolling in college. The Oklahoma State University library, for example, provides such tours. To further encourage high school students to learn library skills, instructors can contact teachers of high school psychology courses and arrange a visit to conduct at least portions of the exercise through the university office of high school relations. In addition, many universities conduct enrichment camps for high school students and this exercise can be made available as part of their camp activities. A copy of the exercise can also be placed on file in the local public library.

References and Suggested Readings

Abramson, C. I. (1994). A primer of invertebrate learning: The behavioral perspective. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Baxter , P. M. (1986). The benefits of in-class bibliographic instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 40-41.

Baxter, P. M. (1993). Psychology: A guide to reference and information sources. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Feinberg, R. A. (1981). Positive side effects of on-line information retrieval. Teaching of Psychology, 8, 51-52.

Gardner, L. E. (1977). A relatively painless method of introduction to the psychological literature search. Teaching of Psychology, 4, 89-91.

Joswick, K. E. (1994). Getting the most from PsycLIT: Recommendations for searching. Teaching of Psychology, 21, 49-53.

LeUnes, A. D. (1977). The developmental psychology library search: Can a nonsense assignment make sense? Teaching of Psychology, 4, 86.

Lewis, L. K. (1986). Bibliographic computerized searching in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 38-40.

Mathews, J. B. (1978). "Hunting" for psychological literature: A methodology for the introductory research course. Teaching of Psychology, 5, 100-101.

McInnis, R.G. (1982). Research guide for psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Merriam, J., LaBaugh, R. T., & Butterfield, N. E. (1992). Library instruction for psychology majors: Minimum training guidelines. Teaching of Psychology, 19, 34-36.

Moore, M. M. (1989). Library-use deficiencies at the college level: Status and possible causes. Michigan Academician, 21, 163-173.

Parr, V. (1978). Course-related library instruction for psychology students. Teaching of Psychology, 5, 101-102.

Par, V. (1979). On-line information retrieval and the undergraduate. Teaching of Psychology, 6, 61-62.

Reed, J. G., & Baxter, P. M. (1992). Library use: A handbook for psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schilling, K. L. (1983). Teaching psychological issues in context: A library exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 10, 57.

Sutton, E. D., Feinberg, R., Levine, C. R., Sandberg, J. S., & Wilson, J. M. (1995). Bibliographic instruction in psychology: A review of the literature. Reference Services Review, 23, 13-22, 44.

Dr. Charles I. Abramson
Department of Psychology
116 N. Murray
Stillwater, Ok 74078-3064
(405) 744-7492
via E-Mail: charles.abramson@okstate.edu

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